Monday, March 30, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.08 (The Pointy End)

As always, thanks to my backers on Patreon. By the way, you do all know I post updates a week early there, right?

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark, Sansa Stark, Arya Stark
Direwolves of the Eyrie: Catelyn Stark
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of the Dothraki Sea: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of the Dothraki Sea: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Direwolves of Winterfell: Robb Stark, Bran Stark
Kraken of Winterfell: Theon Greyjoy
Stags of King’s Landing: Joffrey Baratheon
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane
And the Lion of the Eyrie, Tyrion Lannister

The episode is in thirteen parts. The first runs eight minutes and is set in King’s Landing. The opening shot is of Arya and Syrio sparring. It features the death of most of the Starks’ guard, killed by the Gold Cloaks, Septa Mordane, killed by the Gold Cloaks, an unknown stableboy, stabbed by Needle, and presumably Syrio Forrell, killed by Meryn Traint. The cliffhanger is resolved five minutes in when Varys visits Ned Stark in his cell. 

The second runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Ned Stark to Jon Snow.

The third runs two minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow talking about his sisters to Sansa. 

The fourth runs two minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by family and causality, from Sansa beginning to write a letter to Robb to Robb reading the letter.

The fifth runs six minutes and is set in the Eyrie. It is in two sections. The first is two minutes long; the transition is by family and image, from Robb reacting to the news of what has happened to Catelyn doing the same. The second is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Catelyn to Tyrion.

The sixth part runs three minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by hard cut, from Tyrion to Jon and other men of the Night’s Watch preparing a meal.

The seventh runs six minutes and is set in the Dothraki Sea; the transition is by family and image, from Jon Snow setting a wight aflame to the fires as the Dothraki sack a village before Daenerys’s eyes. It features the death of Mago, killed by Khal Drogo in combat. At the episode’s halfway point, Daenerys is being called to explain her actions in preventing the rape of the captured women.

The eighth runs six minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is by hard cut, from Mirri tending to Khal Drogo’s wound to the bannermen in Winterfell. 

The ninth runs one minute and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Osha talking about the coming White Walkers to the burning of the wight.

The tenth runs four minutes and is set in the North; the transition is by image, from the Wall to a smaller keep as Catelyn arrives at Robb’s camp.

The eleventh runs four minutes and is set in the Lannister camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by dialogue, from Catelyn and Robb talking about the Lannisters to the camp. 

The twelfth runs three minutes and is set in the Stark camp in the Riverlands; the transition is by dialogue, from Tywin talking about the Stark army to the Starks. 

The thirteenth runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing. It is in two sections. The first section is seconds long; the transition is by family, from Robb and Catelyn Stark to Ned. The other is six minutes long; the transition is by family, from Ned to Sansa. The final shot is of the Iron Throne eclipsing Sansa as she promises that her father will say “Mornington Crescent.”

Analysis

In a structural sense, “The Pointy End” continues the work of “You Win or You Die” in presenting the game as one that does not need to focus exclusively or even primarily on Ned Stark. Where “You Win or You Die” did this by revealing a new point at which power is anchored, “The Pointy End” does it in an altogether more straightforward way, namely by only having Ned Stark in the episode for about three minutes. Beyond that, it has the shortest amount of time in King’s Landing to date, at just sixteen minutes. But unlike “A Golden Crown,” this isn’t made up at the Dothraki Sea, which gets only six minutes. Instead the area to really get bulked out is Winterfell and Robb’s army, which gets fifteen minutes. (Athough given that Catelyn appears in two locations in the course of the story, one can fairly count it as slightly more under alternate scoring systems.)

This fact also highlights one of the most fundamental changes between the books and television show, which is the way in which the plot surrounding the Northern army unfolds. One of the odder facts about the books is that Robb Stark is never a viewpoint character. He is instead essentially shown entirely through Bran’s eyes for the bulk of the first book, and subsequently through Catelyn’s. The result of this is that, without ever saying so in as many words, the books repeatedly communicate the fact that Robb is not the hero of this narrative. And it is clear that in crafting the show, the writers intended to give a comparable effect. Perhaps most obviously, in a decision that really only makes a lick of sense if you’ve read the books, Robb appears in eight episodes of the first season, whereas Theon, a character who, at the end of the first season, still has not strictly speaking had anything that could be called a plot, appears in nine, including several scenes focused entirely on developing his character, a luxury Robb essentially never gets. 

But it is in many ways impossible to actually create the same effect on television. Robb is there on the screen, as visibly a major character as Catelyn. And without the ability to highlight characters’ importance by giving them viewpoint chapters, there’s no way for the series to effectively fight against the instinctive narrative weight that Robb has by virtue of being Ned Stark’s firstborn son and heir. And so as Robb emerges as a structurally powerful character by dint of his leading a massive army in rebellion against the Iron Throne the subtle efforts to downplay his importance start to unravel, beginning a process that will culminate in him being moved ahead of Catelyn in the credit sequence for Season Three. 

“The Pointy End” ends up existing at a strange midpoint between these two drives, with Robb visibly becoming important (without ever having received any character development), but with major scenes still putting the emphasis in places other than Robb. Instead of a scene of Robb marching off to war, there is a scene of him saying goodbye to Bran, with the subsequent cut between scenes following Bran, not Robb. And while Robb gets a big scene of ordering Maester Luwin to call the banners, the scene focuses heavily on Theon as well - most obviously, after Robb actually gives the order to call them, the camera cuts to Theon’s reaction, and Theon is given just as much overall weight in the sequence as Robb. 

“The Pointy End” also marks a point where it is impossible not to focus heavily on the specific creative personnel behind the episode. This is because the writer of the episode is George R.R. Martin himself, who penned one episode for each of the first four seasons. Much of the significance of this comes down to the peculiar politics of fandom, with Martin coming out of a very orthodox sort of American sci-fi/fantasy fandom and having numerous readers who belong to the same culture. For many such readers/viewers, Martin’s presence as a screenwriter for the television adaptation served as an important warrant of the adaptation’s underlying fidelity to the work. And there are ways in which this fact subtly informs the particulars of gameplay.

For one thing, it is worth noting that there are several regards in which Martin’s script does not quite match the style of the others in the season. The books are much less structured around clean transitions between chapters, and this shows in Martin’s script, which is very heavy on hard cuts and not particularly carefully shaped beyond its choices of emphasis. Also atypical is the entire first part of the episode, which jumps freely around King’s Landing in the aftermath of Ned’s arrest, switching amongst Arya, Sansa, and scenes of Stark men getting cut down, in marked contrast to the show’s usual tendency to play through one set of characters and then move on to the next. It’s not an unreasonable choice for the circumstances - indeed, for a chaotic sequence of events that are unfolding in multiple parts of the capital at once, it’s a strong storytelling decision. But it is, once again, slightly out of keeping with the show’s usual technique. 

There’s also an odd bit of chronology early in the episode whereby it cuts to news of Ned’s arrest reaching the Wall, then back to King’s Landing to have Sansa coerced into writing a letter to Winterfell, then to Winterfell getting the news, a sequence of cuts that must move back and forth across a couple of days, as there’s no way Sansa’s sending of the letter to Winterfell would have postdated news arriving at the Wall. Both book and show regularly engage in fungible timelines, but rarely do they explicitly move backwards like this. The problem arises almost entirely because Martin follows the sequence of locations from the books almost exactly, where events are told from Ned’s perspective up to the point where Littlefinger betrays him, then does an Arya chapter consisting of her escape, then a Sansa chapter picking up with her already arrested and ending with her agreeing to send the Queen’s messages, then to Jon Snow, and finally to Bran, with Bran’s chapter beginning well after Robb has heard the news. Martin makes the sensible decision to add a scene of Robb hearing the news, just as he adds Sansa’s capture, but doesn’t change the sequence from King’s Landing-Wall-Winterfell accordingly. 


Finally, it is worth pointing out Arya’s plot, not least because it gives the episode it’s title despite taking up a fairly small portion of it. We ought pay fleeting lip service to the largely discredited theory that Syrio Forel survives his fight with Meryn Trant and gets taken to the black cells, although it seems rather unlikely given that Meryn Trant survives the fight. But considerably more important is simply the fact that Arya makes her first kill here, stabbing a stableboy in the course of her retreat. This is played with a strikingly understated tone - Arya has a momentary look of horror on her face before she runs, but no time is spent, here or elsewhere, on her psychological state after killing someone. This is in marked contrast to the books, where it is explicitly “the stableboy’s accusing eyes” that causes her to flee the stables, and she is described as “still and frightened in the face of death.” The show also cuts Arya’s story off as she flees, where the book continues with her terrified flight through the capital at some length. The result is that Arya’s weaponization is accelerated, such that her deviation from the “plucky children’s lit heroine” role she initially seems to be created for is a sharp swerve as opposed to a more gradual drift. This, in turn, highlights the fact that the Starks, although they may originate as clear-cut examples of specific genre tropes, are very much able to deviate from that course, a fact that will become tremendously important very shortly. 

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Saturday Waffling (March 28th, 2015)

This week's Saturday Waffling is sponsored by Jed Blue, who has a new book out called The Very Soil: An Unauthorized Critical Study of Puella Magi Madoka Magica that you should go check out.

Meanwhile, over here, I find myself working on the Super Nintendo Project in amidst finishing up the Bojeffries Saga chapter of Last War in Albion. So, as I work on that, what are your memories of the Super Nintendo? Or, if you were from the other side of that generation's console wars, of the Sega Genesis?

Friday, March 27, 2015

Only Dreaming In His Tank (The Last War in Albion Part 89: The Bojeffries Saga)

This is the first of a currently unknown number of parts of The Last War in Albion Chapter Ten, focusing on Alan Moore's Bojeffries Saga. An omnibus will be available as soon as possible.

The Bojeffries Saga is available in a collected edition that can be purchased in the US or in the UK.

Previously in The Last War in Albion: In Warrior, the doomed but influential comics magazine published by Dez Skinn, Alan Moore got his first two regular strips as a writer, and in the process established himself as the most striking and vibrant voice in British comics. The first was V for Vendetta, his anarchist dystopian sci-fi noir with David Lloyd, and the second was Marvelman, his postmodern reinvention of a half-forgotten British superhero comic. 

"He's only dreaming in his tank. Anyway, now that you've chosen to stay and take part in our little experiment, you may be wondering how much of what you're about to experience is real." - Grant Morrison, Multiversity: Ultra Comics

Figure 677: Hunt Emerson's "Stir Crazy" was one of several humor strips
published over the course of Warrior. (From Warrior #8, 1982)
There is, however, one more detail of Moore’s engagement with Warrior to cover - a pair of two-part stories published under the title The Bojeffries Saga. These are in many ways something of a curious footnote to Moore’s Warrior-era career. They constitute a total of twenty-four pages of comics, and are arguably most notable for being the answer to the mildly challenging trivia question “alongside V for Vendetta and Marvelman, what’s the third series Alan Moore created for Warrior.” Much of this is down to the fact that The Bojeffries Saga is markedly out of keeping with the general tone of Warrior. This is often ascribed to the fact that it is overtly a comedy, as opposed to an action-heavy adventure strip, but this does not really capture the full story. From the start, comedy was a part of Warrior - the first issue, in fact, featured a two-page comedic bit by Steve Moore and Dave Gibbons called “A True Story?” and firmly in the mould of Tharg’s Future Shocks from 2000 AD, and other overtly comedic stories like Hunt Emerson’s “Stir Crazy” and Laser Eraser and Pressbutton always had a consciously humorous streak to it, especially on the occasions when it was replaced with a Zirk strip. Nor can The Bojeffries Saga’s status as a comedy explain its marginal status within Moore’s overall career. Yes, Moore’s serious work is generally the material that attracts the most critical attention, but it’s hardly as if D.R. & Quinch, to take the most obvious example, is a relatively ignored and minor part of Moore’s career - indeed, if anything Moore’s ultra-violent alien miscreants get somewhat more attention than they deserve, despite clearly being a comedy.

Figure 678: A slave revolt in the Ninth Dimension. (From
"A True Story?," written by Steve Moore, at by Dave Gibbons,
in Warrior #1, 1982)
But what D.R. & Quinch and most of the other comedy in Warrior has in common that sets they apart from The Bojeffries Saga is that they are all comedic versions of the action-adventure strips that are Warrior and 2000 AD’s bread and butter. “A True Story?”, for example, is the tale of a cartoonist who, as he ponders the idea of a time loop, is sucked into a dimensional portal in his teacup by Grongad, Tyrant of the Ninth Dimension, where he’s tasked with saving Grongad from a slave revolt, a task he fails at utterly. The now freed slaves are perfectly happy to send him back, except that they send him back to the precise moment Grongad took him from, which, as he observes, means that he’ll be stuck in a time loop, a fact confirmed by the last panel, a repeat of the one right before the cartoonist was abducted. It’s funny, but crucially, it’s a funny strip about a slave revolt in the Ninth Dimension.

Figure 679: Glinda Bojeffries takes offence. (From "The Rentman Cometh,"
written by Alan Moore, art by Steve Parkhouse, in Warrior #12, 1983)
The Bojeffries Saga is markedly different. Yes, its cast includes a werewolf, a vampire, a Lovecraftian horror, and a woman who claims to be able to “arm-wrestle against the gravity-pull of a black hole” because she’s “infinitely powerful,” a statement that, given the rest of the family, is not entirely outside the realm of plausibility. But this cast of supernatural characters is dropped into an aggressively mundane setting where the joke is often based upon the sheer irrelevancy of their supernatural power. Glinda Bojeffries, for instance - the infinitely powerful woman - is never shown using any of her power, instead complaining about how men are sexually intimidated by her “because their fragile male egos don’t like the thought of me being infinitely superior to them in every detail” and yelling furiously at them for any perceived slight, such as her furious reaction upon being called “young lady” by one character, to which she angrily points out, “I have thoughts and feelings too, you know” before accusing him of finding “the idea of a female who can cause nuclear explosions by squinting up one eye threatening to your manhood” and boasting that she “can create a uni-cellular life-form using only the ingredients found in malt vinegar” and slamming the door in his face.

Figure 680: A strange approach to introducing
The Bojeffries Saga.
Certainly figuring out how best to present The Bojeffries Saga to his readers was an obvious challenge for Dez Skinn. By the time of its debut in Warrior #12, it was clear that Moore was the breakout star of the magazine, and so the debut of a new strip by him was an obvious thing to put on the cover of the issue. But the two taglines given to it on the cover are inscrutable choices, to say the least. The first, “a soap opera of the paranormal,” is at least a reasonable description of it, and one Moore uses internally for the second installment of the story in Warrior #13, but it rather crucially withholds just how much emphasis should be put on the “soap opera” part. (It is worth noting that in the British context, this phrase would have evoked more than just the usual associations with ongoing and slightly tawdry drama. As a genre, British soap operas are largely associated with the working class, with the country’s two most popular soaps at the time of Warrior #12 being Coronation Street, a show about the people living on a terraced street outside Manchester that had been running since 1960, and Emmerdale Farm, a 1972-debuting show set in the Yorkshire Dales.) The other description, which proclaims that The Bojeffries Saga “makes Monty Python look like a comedy,” is simply baffling. For one thing, the claim, when actually looked at, would appear to suggest a contrast between Monty Python and The Bojeffries Saga whereby the former is funny and the latter isn’t. For another, however, Monty Python is markedly far from the sort of comedy offered by The Bojeffries Saga. 

Figure 681: The Black Knight sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail
featured Graham Chapman's King Arthur trying and failing to convince John
Cleese's Black Knight that he is unlikely to prevail in a swordfight given his
rapidly increasing number of amputations.
It is not that there are no similarities between Monty Python and The Bojeffries Saga. There absolutely are; not least, as Lance Parkin observes, the fact that Trevor Inchmale, a minor character in the first Bojeffries Saga story, is the sort of character that Monty Python member Michael Palin made his career playing. And more broadly, both fit into a coherent tradition of British comedy - a tradition that Brian Eno, interviewed by Alan Moore, proclaimed to be the country’s “great export” - and have attendant similarities from that. Nevertheless, the differences are both fundamental and revealing. The five British members of Monty Python all had Oxbridge educations, with Michael Palin and Terry Jones both attending Oxford, while Graham Chapman, John Cleese, and Eric Idle all came up through the Cambridge Footlights theater club. (The sixth member, Terry Gilliam, was an American expatriate, but attended a private liberal arts school and worked in advertising before leaving the country.) And while Monty Python’s comedy is often described as “anarchic,” its default mode is still basically to find comedy in the travails of a sane and reasonable man in the face of ridiculous absurdity. This is, after all, the basic structure of most of the troupe’s most famous moments, both on their television show Monty Python’s Flying Circus, in sketches like “Dead Parrot” or “The Spanish Inquisition,” and in their films, such as the Black Knight sequence of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The sense of the anarchic tended to come less from the content of individual sketches and more from the way in which they were assembled to make episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus, with the troupe employing the Spike Milligan-honed technique of cutting sketches off seemingly midway, combining this with Terry Gilliam’s surrealist collage-based animations to link the sketches. 

Figure 682: The first page of The Bojeffries Saga, introducing
Trevor  Inchmale. (Written by  Alan Moore, art by Steve
Parkhouse, from "The  Rentman Cometh" in  Warrior #12, 1982)
But none of this is particularly close to The Bojeffries Saga, which has no particularly avant garde structural techniques, and which is not especially concerned with the travails of sane and reasonable people. Even the first installment, a story in two parts entitled, respectively, “The Rentman Cometh” and “One of Our Rentmen is Missing,” and which comes the closest to tackling the Pythonesque structure of a sane man desperately railing against a lunatic world, ultimately lands far from that. The basic setup - a rentman attempts to investigate a house in seeming arrears only to discover a rabbit hole of impossible weirdness that culminates in him being transformed into a bowl of petunias by a senile Lovecraftian horror - is certainly in the same vein as what might be called the archetypal Monty Python sketch, but this obscures as much as it reveals. Trevor Inchmale, the rentman in question, is ultimately portrayed as being just as ridiculous as the Bojeffries family. Indeed, it is arguably Inchmale, more than any other character in the first story, who is the butt of the jokes. The story’s opening gag is a series of wide panels in which he is depicted biking down a street, thinking to himself, “‘Call me Inchmale.’ ‘Rentman!’ ‘Rent is My Business.’ ‘The Rentman Cometh.’ ‘The Old Rentaroonie.’ ‘Rent Asunder!’” A caption box helpfully explains: “There are many interesting ways in which to spend your mortal existence. Trevor Inchmale favours inventing titles for his forthcoming autobiography.” This sets the tone for a story in which the joke is not so much the absurd set of circumstances that Inchmale faces as it is Inchmale’s fundamental deficiency in being able to make any sense of them, watching, for instance, as Raoul, the werewolf, returns home as a wolf and simply assuming the Bojeffries are guilty of “keeping of pets without council permission.” The story is largely a farce, with increasingly absurd consequences emerging from humorous misunderstandings on the part of a character who can be relied upon to, regardless of the situation, be a complete idiot. 

Figure 683: Steve Parkhouse depicts Glinda Bojeffries snuggling up
to a somewhat alarmed Lenny Henry in the Tundra Press collection of
The Bojeffries Saga.
A potentially more accurate antecedent to The Bojeffries Saga within the history of British comedy is The Young Ones, a BBC Two sitcom that debuted in 1982, the year before The Bojeffries Saga launched. While Moore himself has never cited it as an inspiration, comedian Lenny Henry, when writing the introduction for the 1992 Tundra Publishing collection of The Bojeffries Saga, described the strip as “bringing an anarchy and weirdness to comics similar to the kick up the ass that The Young Ones brought to television.” And while there are still obvious differences - most blatantly that The Young Ones features no overtly supernatural elements (although it’s certainly not a strictly speaking “realistic” series either, with characters routinely doing things like surviving decapitations) - this is, on the whole, probably a more reasonable comparison than Monty Python, if only because The Young Ones is, like The Bojeffries Saga, at heart a show about a bunch of weirdos living together, albeit in this case a couple of University students and not a set of supernatural creatures. 

But in some ways more relevant than the subject matter is simply the attitude of The Young Ones. The show emerged out of the alternative comedy scene that formed around London comedy club the Comedy Store (and subsequently at the Comic Strip, a club formed when several prominent alternative comics split from the Comedy Store) more or less contemporaneously with the War, and, more broadly, and which shared the post-punk aesthetic of most British counterculture of the period. The style was explicitly political, formed in conscious opposition to the dominant mode of British stand-up comedy at the time, taking particular umbrage with the tendency towards overtly racist and sexist humor. But more than that, alternative comedy was based on a fundamental transition in the basic style and structure of comedy. Instead of focusing on comedy’s roots in the old music hall tradition, alternative comics were generally writer-performers who worked outside of the old-fashioned “joke” structure and focused exclusively on originally composed material instead of classic and well-worn gags. 

Figure 684: Alexei Sayle in The Young Ones.
But for all that Monty Python, as a troupe of writer-performers, marked an important antecedent to alternative comedy, the new movement was least in part defined by contrast to the Oxbridge-dominated tradition of comedy that preceded it. Indeed, Alexei Sayle, the MC at the Comedy Store when the alternative comedy scene was forming, and one of its most prominent members, cites a 1984 episode of The Young Ones that featured appearances from several comedians who came up through the Cambridge Footlights group a generation after Cleese and Chapman did, as the “turning point” in the alternative comedy scene, at which it started moving towards the political center and away from the radical political ideas that he’d envisioned for it.

Figure 685: Demented class-war ravings.
Sayle’s shock is not entirely fair (and it should be stressed that Sayle is clearly poking fun at his own political intransigence as much as he’s offering a serious history of the alternative comedy scene, describing how, upon turning up at the studio to discover the guest stars, he “railed at the writers,” saying, “The whole point of what we were doing was surely to challenge the smug hegemony of the Oxford, Cambridge, public-schoolboy comedy network, as well as destroying the old-school working men's club racists,” to which, in his telling, the writers replied “that was just you, we never subscribed to your demented class-war ravings”). [continued]

Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Mind Robber Commentary

I'm pleased to announce that the second of my Doctor Who commentary tracks, on the classic Patrick Troughton serial The Mind Robber, is now available. Thanks to Jack Graham for joining me for the fun once again.

These commentary tracks will continue through the eleven stories promised by the Kickstarter, and will continue past that assuming the Patreon is over $300 a week by that point.

The tracks are available here, in a zip file containing commentaries for all five episodes. Please enjoy, and do let me know how you like them.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Comic Reviews (March 25th, 2015)

From worst to best of what I willingly paid money for. Also, the Mind Robber commentary will be coming out tomorrow afternoon - was going to edit it all tonight, but I'm falling asleep at the keyboard, so I'll finish tomorrow.

Multiversity: Ultra Comics #1

The concept, of course, is just that of the classic The Monster at the End of this Book. But I want to raise a larger issue here - this is the issue of Multiversity that's been most hyped - the "hypnotic induction" and "haunted" comic, which is literally dangerous to read. But if we take Morrison's larger philosophical framework seriously - if, in other words, we accept his vision of how magic works and of what art is - then this is, I think, a flatly unethical comic. Morrison's beliefs are such that parasitic and vampiric ideas are real things that can cause genuine harm and damage. Given this, unleashing one to feast upon the reader and making the reader's infection by this idea a necessary part of the popular Multiversity crossover is at best ethically questionable, and worst monstrous of him. It's clever, but it's also borderline sociopathic.

The Black Vortex Parts 7-9

The rhythm of this continues to be frustrating - the Nova issue, in particular, felt like a complete digression to try to sell an issue of Nova, which was admittedly not an awful issue, but which is nevertheless frustrating, not least when Marvel's scheduling means that three issues of this blob out at once. Whereas the "encase Spartax in amber so the Brood can eat people" twist is... thoroughly a delaying tactic and a direction I find myself spectacularly not caring about. Very much a "this is why I hate crossovers" moment.

Chew #47

This did nothing for me. Like, left me completely cold, no real comments to make on any front.

New Avengers #32

Man, remember when you could meaningfully tell the Avengers books apart? Still, this is a good issue, and kills off half the characters I couldn't ever remember who were, so that's nice too, because now I presumably don't have to try. But this is probably the most lackluster beat before Secret Wars - too far before it to actually reveal much, but close enough that one feels impatient. This is a fine comic, but one suspects it is sound, fury, and a distinct lack of signification.

Gotham Academy #6

Interesting, and I like the last twist, but ultimately, the problem with being unable to remember any characters' backgrounds I've had here is too entrenched, and I think I'm going to drop this in favor of trade-waiting.

Daredevil #14

Fun, nice twist at the end. One gets the sense Waid is working towards a conclusion to this, which is probably for the best, not least because they'll want a new #1 sometime soon for the Netflix series, but it seems like a good conclusion. I quite like the Owl's daughter. And Daredevil's new costume, for that matter.

Uncanny X-Men #32

At last, Cyclops gets to the point where he's been in Avengers, and things start to look interesting. Really quite excited to watch Bendis end this run, as he's usually decent with endings, and the premise seems very interesting. And this sort of issue - one that's basically just a series of conversations - is the sort of thing he's good at. Quite fun.

Darth Vader #3

Kieron Gillen correctly intuits that what Darth Vader really needed was a wisecracking female archeologist sidekick. Astonishingly, he's not even a Doctor Who fan. Plus, a homicidal protocol droid that obviously owes exactly the right amount of debt to Knights of the Old Republic. I'd been waiting for this comic to hit its stride and show what it's going to be like, and for me, at least, it just absolutely nailed it this month.

Doctor Who: The Eleventh Doctor #10

A big arc reaches its finale, with loads of bits that amount to narrative restatements of many of the basic principles of TARDIS Eruditorum, and just plain right-on "yes this is what Doctor Who should be" stuff. Fantastic, fantastic stuff - this remains the best Doctor Who comic I've ever seen.

The Wicked & The Divine #9

The presence of Ananke on the cover always suggested this issue may be A Bit of a Thing, and sure enough, some serious fireworks kick off here, with an absolutely huge shift to the status quo. And, interestingly, an issue that largely doesn't feature Laura, and instead makes big philosophical statements about the nature of gods. The book goes from strength to strength, and one kind of expects the next two issues are going to be a mite explosive. Not least because of the cover for #11. Also, love the Spider Jerusalem nod in "I feel an essay coming on."

Monday, March 23, 2015

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones 1.07: You Win or You Die

A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones is brought to you by my backers at Patreon.

State of Play

The choir goes off. The board is laid out thusly:

Direwolves of King’s Landing: Eddard Stark
Stags of King’s Landing: Robert Baratheon, Joffrey Baratheon
The Lion, Jaime Lannister
Lions of King’s Landing: Cersei Lannister
Dragons of Vaes Dothrak: Daenerys Targaryen
Bears of Vaes Dothrak: Jorah Mormont
Mockingbirds of King’s Landing: Petyr Baelish
Direwolves of the Wall: Jon Snow
Kraken of Winterefll: Theon Greyjoy
Dogs of King’s Landing: Sandor Clegane

The Eyrie is deserted. 

The episode is in eleven parts. The first runs five minutes; it is set at the Lannister encampment in the Riverlands. The opening shot is an establishing shot of the camp. 

The second runs eight minutes and is in sections; it is set in King’s Landing.  The first section is three minutes long; the transition is by family, from Jaime and Tywin Lannister to Cersei. The other is four minutes long; the transition is by hard cut, from Cersei leaving the godswood to a street in Flea Bottom. 

The third runs two minutes and is set in Winterfell; the transition is from Ros to Theon. 

The fourth runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by dialogue, from Osha talking about the things north of the Wall to Jon sighting the returning horse of a dead ranger.

The fifth runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family and dialogue, from Jon Snow reacting to Benjen’s empty horse to Ned. It features the death of Robert Baratheon, murdered by a pig (and by Cersei Lannister). 

The sixth runs six minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by dialogue, from Ned and Varys talking about the order to kill Daenerys to Daenerys and the attempt on her life.

The seventh runs seven minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Jorah to Lord Commander Mormont. 

The eighth runs six minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Ned Stark.

The ninth runs two minutes and is set on the Wall; the transition is by family, from Ned Stark to Jon Snow.

The tenth runs four minutes and is set in Vaes Dothrak; the transition is by family, from Jon Snow to Daenerys Targaryen.

The last runs seven minutes and is set in King’s Landing; the transition is by theme, from Daenerys riding off to take the Iron Throne with King Robert’s assassin being dragged behind her horse to Ned Stark being informed of King Robert’s death and the passage of the Iron Throne to King Joffrey. The final shot is of Ned Stark with Littlefinger’s dagger at his throat, as Littlefinger hisses “Mornington Crescent.” 

Analysis

Given that it is the last episode to feature him in the bulk of it, it is fitting that “You Win or You Die” provides Ned Stark with a classical tragedy in miniature, taking him from his position of relative strength at the end of “A Golden Crown” as someone who has figured out the truth of Jon Arryn’s death and who literally need only succeed in making it into a room with Robert Baratheon and pointing out that Joffrey isn’t his son before he’ll have basically won to being completely and utterly defeated. This impressive demonstration of complete and utter failure is, as befits a proper tragedy, due to the fact that Ned Stark is a man whose skills and virtues are exactly wrong for the situation in which he finds himself. Were he a man with even a trace of ruthless cunning within him, he would recognize the absurd folly of his confrontation with Cersei, would realize that telling Robert the truth on his deathbed is self-evidently the safest and sanest way to go about things, would appreciate that Renly makes by far the most reasonable proposal in the wake of Robert’s death, or would at the very least take Littlefinger up on his suggestion that perhaps an immediate confrontation with Cersei is not the best move. Instead he is, at every turn, loyal and honorable, and at every turn completely and utterly fucks up. 

But although the game is rapidly turning into a tragedy for Ned Stark, this is in no way the endpoint of the story, and the board is already reconfiguring itself around these events, laying the foundations for a game without Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell in it. Central to this is the first scene, which finally introduces Tywin Lannister. This in and of itself constitutes a significant revision of the state of play. The Lannister/Stark conflict that was used to deceptively frame the series at the outset only ever had room for the three siblings. Tywin is mentioned in passing, but as a figure from Jaime and Cersei’s childhood. It’s not until “The Wolf and the Lion” that Tywin begins to exert any visible power over the narrative, as opposed to simply being referred to as a figure from the past, as Tyrion notes that word of his capture has no doubt reached Tywin, and Robert (in a fantastic added scene between him and Cersei) accuses Cersei of simply parroting Tywin’s words regarding the Targaryens. 

But “You Win or You Die” opens with Tywin, and, more to the point, does so with intense symbolic bombast, such that the audience’s first sight of Tywin is as he butchers a stag. The result quietly frames both Robert’s death and Ned’s downfall as things that stem out of his newfound presence in the narrative, creating a new center of gravity and power that will take up the slack as two of the most obvious existing centers of power fall. The introduction is brief - he appears only in the five minute scene at the top of the episode, and as much of that is concerned with Jaime as with introducing him - but effective, with Tywin’s dialogue focusing almost entirely on the question of the Lannister name and its future, clearly setting up the character’s motives.

Also significant is a lengthy monologue for Littlefinger, which serves to nail down his loyalties (or lack thereof) early in the episode so that his betrayal of Ned Stark in the cliffhanger has motivation and precedent. This is, to say the least, not the most impressive scene the show has ever mustered. Its reasons for existing are sensible enough - as usual, lacking the ability to deliver exposition via interior monologue, there have been few opportunities since his initial dialogue back in “Lord Snow” to remind the audience of his relationship with Catelyn. A scene in which this is reiterated is an important step in building to the episode’s finish. The problem is that there is precious little reason for him to reveal his motivations, and the scene consists of little more than him providing a motivation-free monologue while the issue of visuals is handled by a lengthy sequence of shots of naked women. It is this scene, more than any other, that results in the show’s reputation for “sexposition” (a term coined in direct response to this scene), and while it will never again engage in sex scenes quite as pointless as this, it is nevertheless revealing with regards to the show’s general approach.

There is little, in the broad case, to say here. The rueful shaking of the head that such blatant objectification and willingness to wallow in the male gaze produces is, by and large, the sum of it. It is not, to be clear, the focus on sex, which stems logically from the materialism of the game’s sense of historical progress, just as its commitment to depicting the raw brutality of violence does. The centrality of brothels and the acknowledgment of sex as a form of currency and power is crucial to what the show is. Nor is there anything amiss in most of the characters’ attitudes towards sex. The comparative disenfranchisement of women is a crucial part of the arcs of several female characters, and that goes hand in hand with the depiction of particular male attitudes towards women and sex. Rather, the sins are on the part of the camera, which unerringly allies itself with these attitudes, moving the show from being set in a world that features disenfranchisement and objectification of women (but that leaves it as a valid object of critique) to one that enjoys being set in such a world. Much like the thousands of slaves killed building the stadiums for the 2022 World Cup, this is something that must be acknowledged as an unfortunate design flaw in an otherwise entertaining game.

This poses a significant problem elsewhere, however. “You Win or You Die,” like several episodes before it, makes a quick excursion up to Winterfell to remind the audience that it exists (despite the fact that essentially nothing of import happens there between Bran waking up and the end of this episode), and, as with most of those episodes, opts to focus on Theon. A major takeaway of the scene between Theon and Osha is meant to be the fact that Theon is something of a nasty piece of work. But when the scene is immediately preceded by the show engaging in exactly the sort of leering entitlement that Theon displays, the point is more than slightly lost.

This is not the only spot where the storytelling frays a bit (and it’s also worth recalling the inadvertent suggestion that Joffrey is a Targaryen that comes out of the editing in “A Golden Crown”), with the handling of the assassination attempt on Daenerys serving to badly muddle the revelation in “The Wolf and the Lion” that Varys is in league with Illyrio and thus with the Targaryens. The books eventually establish that Varys, through Illyrio, got word to Jorah so that he could prevent the assassination attempt. But here Varys is, by all appearances, the primary force behind the assassination attempt, which matches poorly with his apparent motivations. It is nothing that cannot be papered over - it takes little to assume that at this stage of the game Varys still believed Viserys to be the best candidate to back, and thus saw eliminating Daenerys as a safer move than it was. Nevertheless, coming so close on the heels of the explicit revelation of Varys’s intentions, it ends up being a sloppy bit of storytelling.


But for all of these bits of confusion, the overall shape of the game is rapidly evolving, and the episode’s cliffhanger is an especially dramatic one. Where Viserys’s death mostly served to make things more straightforward, Robert’s death serves to completely destabilize the entire board, and with Ned having everything completely unravel for him, the show finds itself in a state that could hardly have been predicted at the outset. 

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Saturday Waffling (March 21st, 2015)

Mostly announcements today. First of all, I've revamped the options on the Patreon a bit, changing around some thresholds for things. Comics reviews are now contingent on the Patreon staying over $200 a week, which we're comfortably past at the moment. The continuation of the episode commentary podcasts past the initial eleven will be at $300, which we're near. The Mind Robber will be going up next week sometime, all five episodes at once, on either Tuesday or Thursday depending on when I do the editing. And an extra essay a week is still at $400, which we're rather a ways from, but which I'd obviously love to reach. That extra essay will be something of a floater, allowing for more idiosyncratic and one-off projects, and for more variety, either in two projects running simultaneously, or in getting through things like A Brief Treatise on the Rules of Thrones faster.

I've also added a $5 a week reward tier, whereby backers at that level will get a bunch of extra perks, including free print copies of new books (free ebooks are available at $2 a week), voting for future podcast commentaries, participation in a monthly Q&A, plus joining a rotating sponsorship of Saturday Wafflings, with a link to a site of your choice. You can, as always, back here.

Which brings us to Andrew Morton, sponsor of this week's Saturday Waffling. He's chosen the Verity podcast, which is something I've, personally, been meaning to check out, as I've heard fantastic things about it. I remember meeting one of the women involved at the DePaul University thing a few years ago, and she seemed brilliant and cool, and I just don't ever have time to listen to podcasts. But the Verity podcast is an all-female Doctor Who podcast that has gotten rave reviews - I know Paul Cornell is a huge fan. So, yes, check them out. Do not make the mistakes I make. And thank you Andrew.

Also, I want to thank all of the backers. The Patreon has been a major help over the last few months, and has made the difference between a slowly dwindling savings account and one that's mostly growing faster than it contracts. Notably, when Jill's laptop went to the Great Apple Store in the Sky the other month, this was mostly an inconvenience and not a semi-major crisis. That was due almost entirely to the Patreon. So thank you, everyone. As I've said many times, but not nearly enough, I'm incredibly blessed to have this job.

Also, happy spring. (Or autumn, for the southern hemisphere.) What are people excited about over the next three months?